In this 21st century, science and politics are intertwined to a greater degree than ever before. Global warming poses a long-term challenge with no easy answers. The prospect of terrorism using technology such as dirty bombs and biowarfare looms large on everybody's radar. Then there is the threat of a bird-flu pandemic, not to mention the issues of embryonic stem cells, energy policy, missile defense, education, voting technologies.... The list goes on and on.
More than ever, those elected to govern are in need of timely, high-quality, impartial advice on matters of science and technology. Yet for nearly a decade now, one of the most successful agencies for providing just such advice--the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)--has been defunct. Scrapped in September 1995 to save a paltry $22 million from the $2 billion spent each year on congressional operations, the OTA had produced widely hailed reports on an extraordinarily broad range of topics. (The full set of over 750 OTA reports is archived at www.wws.princeton.edu/~ota/)
Rather than spelling out a single prescription, OTA reports usually gave alternatives matched to different goals Congress might want to achieve. Instead of watering down recommendations to achieve a consensus, as is the custom of many blue-ribbon panels, the OTA deliberately sought out conflicting viewpoints. Often people on both sides of an issue would cite the same report during debate. Governments around the world emulated the U.S. example and still have their own versions of the OTA.
Some argue that Congress has other avenues for obtaining scientific advice, such as the Congressional Research Service. But the service is not equipped to provide the detailed technical analysis that was the hallmark of the OTA. The National Academies, another source for scientific advice, do estimable work, but their reports are more expensive and take longer than the OTA's did. The recently released study on Internet traffic entitled "Signposts in Cyberspace," commissioned an appalling seven years ago, is an egregious example.
The executive branch, of course, has the Office of Science and Technology Policy and a variety of departments and agencies at its beck and call, but the legislative branch needs its own independent source of advice. Such checks and balances are all the more necessary in an era as politicized as our own. The Bush administration has been criticized for either ignoring agency scientists who disagree with its policies or pressuring them to change study conclusions. A survey of researchers working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that more than one in five had been "directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information" from a USFWS document. And the Bush administration is hardly the first to spin scientific findings to its own ends; both political parties have been guilty.
Although the OTA was killed by conservatives, today both conservatives and liberals support reestablishing it. Indeed, support from fiscal conservatives should be natural; Congress saved hundreds of millions of dollars by following OTA recommendations.
To bring back the OTA and its independent approach, re-fund it. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, a former research physicist, is considering introducing a bill to reestablish the OTA. Holt introduced a similar bill in the previous session of Congress, along with co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, but it never returned from committee. This time Congress should pass the bill instead of letting it die.
This article was originally published with the title Bring Back the OTA.